Shrink Rap News

Challenges in outpatient psychiatry: When patients don’t pay


Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles by Dr. Miller about challenges in outpatient psychiatry.

Mr. A lived a life that seemed glamorous to me. There were lunches with professional athletes, swank social events, and designer everything from clothes to cars. It was a world that I was not familiar with, and while I knew my patient worried about money, it seemed he had it. When he started therapy with me, Mr. A came to every session with a check. At some point, I realized that I had missed a switch in his mood. Despite his therapeutic level of lithium, Mr. A had become manic, and the expression of this mania took the form of even more spending. What started as an exciting lifestyle suddenly became tens of thousands of dollars of debt. I felt guilty that I initially did not see this as pathology, and as a young psychiatrist, I sought consultation with an older and wiser mentor.

Dr. Miller is coauthor of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Dr. Dinah Miller

After discussing the case, the consulting psychiatrist said to me, “Make sure you get paid; these cases are difficult.” In fact, in the midst of the chaos, Mr. A had stopped bringing a check to the sessions. I sent monthly statements, and they went unpaid. He didn’t have the money for his living expenses and I let this go on without addressing it for much too long. Soon, Mr. A’s debt to me was just one more stress in his life and while I knew I would not pursue reimbursement through legal channels, I did encourage him to find a psychiatrist who was in his insurance network, something he did not want to do. I was too embarrassed to tell the consulting psychiatrist that Mr. A had already accrued well over a thousand dollars in unpaid professional fees. In my mind, I was offering pro bono care because the patient’s financial circumstances had changed, and because I felt guilty that I had not recognized this as mania sooner.

In a 2011 Shrink Rap blog post, Jesse Hellman, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in Towson, Md., wrote about the meaning of payment in psychotherapy:

“Money is something loaded with meaning to most people. What does it mean that the patient forgets to pay? Does it mean ‘if you really cared about me you would not charge me’? Is it a reflection of anger for something that occurred in the last session? Is it a displacement of feelings from something else (‘my boss didn’t give me the raise I expected’)? Is it completely inadvertent (Freud famously said ‘Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar’)?”

There are so many possibilities, and the psychodynamic therapist wants to understand them. How the patient relates to the therapist is some part of how he relates to others. The patient hopefully starts to watch his own actions and attitudes and also tries to understand them. A nonjudgmental stance helps the patient do this.

The therapist himself needs to be comfortable dealing with the subject of money. Sometimes beginning physicians fluctuate between feeling they are too inexperienced to be paid and feeling that they deserve anything they ask. We physicians might even (unfortunately) take on the attitudes of the insurance companies themselves (“Identification with the Aggressor”).

The blog post was flooded with comments –120 in total, and more comments than any other single Shrink Rap post received for the blog’s 12-year run.

Steven Reidbord, MD, is a psychiatrist in private practice in San Francisco and also a blogger. Dr. Reidbord conversed with me through email about patients who don’t pay.

“In years past, I’ve had a few patients who met with me a few times, always ‘forgetting’ their payment and offering it ‘next time,’ until after three or four sessions, I refused to see them. I always wondered what such patients were thinking, as obviously this arrangement wouldn’t last long. Did they tell themselves they’d pay me at some point, in effect fooling themselves? Was it conscious theft of my services? A couple years ago, I started accepting charge cards, and perhaps as a result, this hasn’t happened. While it’s always useful to consider individual dynamics in explaining such behavior, it’s also important to consider normative psychology: Make it easier to pay, and more people will.”

While payment for out-of-network services is often clear cut – the patients pay and then requests reimbursement from their insurer – the logistics often are confusing for the patient. He or she may believe that she has excellent coverage, only to learn that the out-of-network deductible is very high, or that reimbursement is based on “usual and customary fees” that are much lower than his psychiatrist’s fees. Sometimes people take on the cost of psychiatric care and discover that it costs more than they assumed, or they have a change in their financial circumstances, as my patient did. Sometimes a parent is paying for treatment and decides he can no longer afford it.

“When someone’s financial circumstances change, they often let me know by proposing we meet less often, for example, every other week,” Dr. Reidbord wrote. “I ask to hear more and often offer to adjust my fee to allow weekly meetings to continue.”

Not all patients pay for psychiatric services, and that may make the discussion even harder. When psychiatrists participate with insurance, the patients are responsible for paying only their deductible and then a copay. The patients may unexpectedly be billed for the entire fee if their insurance terminates, or if it does not pay for a submitted claim. And patients who carry public insurance may be seen at sites where there is no out-of-pocket cost to the patient; salaried clinicians often never know if the insurance has paid. In both of these settings, finances are usually discussed with administrative personnel and not with clinical staff.

Anthony Massey, MD, is founder of Maryland’s Gladstone Psychiatry and Wellness. The group is a multidisciplinary organization, and the clinicians participate with employer-based commercial health insurances. The group accepts payment directly from the insurer, and the patient is responsible for payment of the deductible and a copay.

“We try to understand what someone owes before the first appointment. We do an eligibility check online, and we ask for payment at the time of the appointment,” Massey explained. “Sometimes the insurance changes and we don’t know, or sometimes a patient comes to the appointment without the copay. We try to work with people, but if someone builds up a balance over $500, we tell them they can’t be seen here until it’s paid down. We’ll give patients a 30-day prescription and the names of other psychiatrists who accept insurance, but we don’t keep seeing people who don’t pay for their treatment.”

In all medical settings, unpaid bills present a problem, and while most psychiatrists have a method to deal with these issues, there is no perfect answer for every doctor in every situation. There is this tension between wanting to be kind and understanding of the hardships that people have whether those hardships result from life circumstances or from their own choices and behaviors, and of our own need to make the living we feel we deserve and to pay our own bills.

“The only advice I’d give other psychiatrists is to catch it early,” Reidbord said. “Have a policy that feels fair – payment before each session, payment just after each session, payment soon after receiving a monthly itemized statement, whatever seems right to you – and stick with it. If a patient doesn’t pay according to your clearly stated policy, explore it right away. Remember that pragmatic issues like poor budgeting or unexpected expenses are just as likely as intrapsychic conflict and ‘acting out.’ Both should be considered.”

I wish I could say that in the decades since I treated Mr. A that no patients have ever failed to pay their professional fees and that I have perfectly mastered my own issues with money as it pertains to professional fees. While the vast majority of patients do pay, there are still occasional circumstances in which someone’s financial circumstances change, or very rarely where someone ends his treatment without paying for the last few sessions.

Dr. Miller is the coauthor with Annette Hanson, MD, of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016) and has a private practice in Baltimore. Patient details were altered to preserve confidentiality.

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